Bobby Flay on Turkey, Liquor, and Not Ruining Your Family's Thanksgiving
Bobby Flay is very late. But when he rings the Thrillist hotline 40 minutes after our appointed time, he’s super cool about it. “Dude, I fucked up,” he says. “I’m really sorry I’m late. That drives me crazy. Are you okay?” We suspect we’ll live. The wait just gave us more time to gawk at all the food porn currently cramming the Interhole in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
As a world-class chef, restaurateur, best-selling author of more than a dozen cookbooks, and host of a dizzying array of TV shows on the Food Network and Cooking Channel, Flay is practically ubiquitous. As we scroll through his recipes online, we imagine gorging ourselves on his black pepper-pomegranate molasses-glazed turkey. We fantasize about two-fingering the caramelized Vidalia onion and potato gratin with fresh sage. We picture ourselves getting shit-hammered on his signature harvest margaritas.
And why not? Excess and gluttony are the bloated hallmarks of this uniquely American holiday. We asked our man for advice on keeping it civilized.
THRILLIST: What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year?
BOBBY FLAY: I’m cooking for my friends and family. Looks like we’re gonna have about 30 people.
THRILLIST: When you were on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last year around this time, you mentioned that you usually have a bunch of people over to your house for Thanksgiving. Has anyone ever got unruly?
BF: You know, we drink a lot of wine. [Laughs] At the end of the night there’s a lot of empty wine bottles. But I wouldn’t say anyone got unruly. We’ll play some sort of game like Trivial Pursuit, or there’s a football game on, so there has definitely been some yelling and screaming in the past.
THRILLIST: What about kitchen disasters? Any turkeys catching fire or little kids accidentally smashing the bowl of mashed potatoes?
BF: [Laughs] I’ve certainly forgotten things in the oven, because I basically cook the meal by myself. Thanksgiving is one of those meals where it’s hard for someone who cooks professionally to get to the table. I don’t really understand how people who don’t cook for a living get the food to the table. There’s so many dishes, so many sides -- the turkey itself is a bear to handle -- there’s gravy, a couple different potato dishes, the cranberry sauce, somebody wants soup. And then you end up playing bartender half the time. I find it to be the most challenging food day of the year. But at the same time, the most satisfying.
THRILLIST: Has anyone complained about a dish you’ve made for Thanksgiving?
BF: Yes. The problem with Thanksgiving is that people think of it as their meal. There’s a way that certain things get done at everyone’s Thanksgivings and that’s the only way they want it. Like, every year I’ll decide on a different kind of stuffing. One year I’ll do a cornbread and chorizo stuffing, and the next year I’ll do a wild rice with goat cheese stuffing, and the next year I’ll do a country bread and wild mushroom stuffing. But you can never please everyone. If I do cornbread one year, one of my friends will say to me, “Dude, what happened to the wild mushroom stuffing from two years ago?” Thanksgiving is a meal that people look forward to for weeks ahead of time. They crave certain things. If you don’t deliver what they’re expecting, there can certainly be some disappointment. [Laughs]
THRILLIST: But no one’s moaning about the turkey being dry.
BF: No, but I’ve had people say to me, “The mashed potatoes were unbelievable but the cauliflower wasn’t my favorite.” [Laughs] I do this cauliflower and goat cheese gratin sometimes, and someone will say they don’t like the goat cheese with the cauliflower. But that’s okay. That’s what family is for.
THRILLIST: Generally speaking, what do you like about Thanksgiving, and which parts could you do without?
BF: Thanksgiving is my favorite day of the year. It’s a huge undertaking -- I usually start cooking at around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning because I’m cooking for lots of people and I don’t really make anything ahead of time. So I gotta get the turkeys in the oven and sort of clear the space so I can make everything else at the same time. It’s a disaster to clean up. I don’t care who you are, there’s no way to make Thanksgiving easy to clean up. It’s just not happening. There’s gravy on the ceiling; there’s cranberry sauce splattered everywhere. You just can’t get away from it.
THRILLIST: When you have a big group of family and friends together for Thanksgiving, you’re inevitably dealing with some crazy relatives or in-laws or kids running around wreaking havoc. How do you deal with the social aspect of Thanksgiving?
BF: Oh, I stay in the kitchen. [Laughs] Basically, I distract people with food. I like to make a pitcher of cranberry martinis and have it really cold and ready to pour. And I definitely have something for people to snack on, but it’s usually a soup. I might make a pumpkin and smoked chili soup or a crab bisque or something like that. I just put it out in a heated tureen with a ladle and some cups next to it so people serve themselves. They gravitate toward the soup, they have a cocktail, and they start socializing. So, yeah, I think distracting people with food is the best way to take care of [the social aspect].
THRILLIST: Tell me about your worst Thanksgiving ever.
BF: My worst Thanksgiving ever was probably the first Thanksgiving we had at [his place] Mesa Grill like 25 years ago. We got completely inundated, didn’t make enough food, ran out of turkey, and ran out of gravy. People don’t like that on Thanksgiving. [Laughs] I remember sitting on an upside-down bus tray in the kitchen, in my chef whites, just thinking that I was gonna quit. I was like, “This is the worst day of my life.” Because of that experience, when we serve Thanksgiving at [another Flay eatery] Bar Americain, it’s on point.
THRILLIST: What did you end up serving people when you ran out of turkey?
BF: We just told them that we ran out and there was nothing we could do. We tried to get them reservations at other restaurants. It was not fun.
THRILLIST: Have you ever switched it up and done a Thanksgiving without turkey?
BF: No way. I know some people do that, but to me, you have to have turkey on Thanksgiving. I actually love roasting turkey. I smoke it as well, and that’s delicious, too. I usually theme Thanksgiving in terms of flavor. Last year I did an Italian-themed Thanksgiving. It still looked like Thanksgiving as you would know it, but the flavors were different. The turkey was roasted with lemons and rosemary and garlic. I made mashed potatoes with mascarpone cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
THRILLIST: How do you feel about the concept of the kids’ table -- so if a food fight breaks out, the damage is at least somewhat contained?
BF: That doesn’t happen at my house. Kids are people, too. [Laughs] I think everyone needs to be treated equally.
THRILLIST: Where do you stand on these pumpkin-flavored products we’re inundated with in the run-up to Thanksgiving? Are they the scourge of humanity?
BF: Some things I love. I love pumpkin ale. I drink it during the season. I like classic pumpkin dishes like pumpkin pie and pumpkin pudding. I don’t like pumpkin latte, because it has no pumpkin in it. It’s just the spices. If you’re gonna have something with pumpkin in the name, it’s gotta have real pumpkin.
THRILLIST: What about canned cranberry sauce? Is it an abomination?
BF: Yeah. [Laughs] Although, one of my family members demands it every year so I always have one can of cranberry sauce. But I make my own cranberry sauce.
THRILLIST: The Food Network posted a recipe the other day for infusing canned cranberry sauce with vodka and essentially making Jell-O shots out of it. Would you ever try that?
BF: The way I make my cranberry martinis, I steep fresh cranberries in vodka for a few days. It basically just turns the vodka this red color with some cranberry flavor. But you know what? I think the cranberry shots might actually work. I wouldn’t say no. I’d try it.
THRILLIST: How do you feel about Tofurky?
BF: [Laughs] No. Because... no. [Laughs again] In many ways, I think Thanksgiving is a vegetarian’s delight because there’s usually so many vegetable side dishes and they can make a huge meal just out of that. I don’t think you need to make turkey out of tofu.
THRILLIST: What about turducken?
BF: Oh, the chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey? Yeah, I’ve tried that. That’s a New Orleans thing. It’s actually pretty cool. I wouldn’t do it for Thanksgiving, though, because it’s really hard to cook perfectly. I might try it for a Tuesday night.
THRILLIST: Have you seen the Cthurkey? It’s an octopus stuffed inside a turkey and then garnished with crab legs and bacon. It’s terrifying.
BF: What? [Laughs] Oh my God. Some ideas just get taken too far. I’m all for creativity, but some things just don’t make any sense.
THRILLIST: Are there any other animals you would stuff a turkey with?
BF: I’m into surf and turf, but I don’t think I’d mix fish with turkey. Although, you know, I’ve done oyster dressings to serve with turkey. I think the way to get other proteins into your turkey dinner is to do it in the dressing or the stuffing. I’m a purist when it comes to that. I don’t stuff my bird -- I always do dressing on the side. So I could do a cornbread and chorizo and shrimp dressing, if that’s something you really wanted to do. To me that’s forcing the issue, though. It’s as far as I would go.
THRILLIST: What’s for dessert this year?
BF: I don’t know yet. I cook the meal and then I assign people to bring a bottle of wine or dessert. But it’s a specific kind of dessert -- like an apple dessert or a chocolate dessert or a pumpkin dessert -- so we don’t end up with 15 pumpkin pies. They can either make it or buy it. As long as it’s good, I don’t care.
THRILLIST: When someone brings a dessert they’ve made to your Thanksgiving, they’re gonna ask what you think of it. How often do you find yourself lying to people because you don’t want to hurt their feelings?
BF: Usually the desserts people make are tried and true, so I can’t think of an instance when it wasn’t good. Usually people bring things that they know are good.
THRILLIST: What about outside of Thanksgiving, then? Someone wants you to try a dish they’ve made, so you try it and it’s not good. What do you do?
BF: Um... I like everything. [Laughs] I’m easy. I’m appreciative when someone else cooks. I’m a pretty easy judge.
J. Bennett is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles. He enjoys pork products, dressing in the style of 1970s African dictators, and long walks on the beach. His work has appeared in Vice, Noisey, High Times, LA Weekly, and Decibel.